Houthi Offensive Continues in Yemen

Former president calls for political dialogue, fresh electionsA burnt petrol station in Yemen's second city of Aden on Sunday, as the Houthis’ offensive in the country continued.

Houthi militants continued their military campaign Sunday despite the first signs of strain in their alliance with former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, as the former head of state appealed for political dialogue.

Mr. Saleh called for political dialogue and new elections in a curt televised speech Saturday night, and the former autocrat voiced his first difference with the Houthi rebels since they began their campaign to overthrow Yemen’s government in September. Mr. Saleh ruled for two decades until his overthrow in 2012, and has been instrumental in fragmenting the military, retaining loyalty from some units, which joined the Houthi siege of the government.

The Houthi militants are facing stiff resistance in southern Yemen, where pro-government forces are resisting the rebels with the aid of Saudi airstrikes, resulting in hundreds of rebel casualties, security officials and local residents say. The rebels were uprooted from parts of Aden over the weekend, the southern port city President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi fled to from San’a last month as he tried to shore up government forces to stage a comeback.

Mr. Hadi was eventually forced to flee from Aden last week as the Houthis advanced, escaping to first Oman and then Saudi Arabia.

Saudi airstrikes have been instrumental in the rolling back both the advances of Houthi rebels and the Yemeni military units loyal to Mr. Saleh. The strikes have pounded the Houthis in al Anad air base, the former headquarters for the U.S. counterterrorism campaign in Yemen and American special forces. U.S. forces retreated from al Anad this month as Houthi rebels advanced, eventually overrunning the base.

The Houthis’ center of power is in the north and its push into the south is a risky gamble, Arab diplomats say. Southern Yemen is dominated by Sunnis and a tribal structure that is unfriendly to the Houthis, as the latter represents the Zaidi sect, a branch of Shiite Islam that conservative Sunnis find heretical.

“As they push south, they are farther and farther from their supply lines in the north, which makes no sense militarily,” said an Egyptian diplomat who is observing Yemen.

Although the Zaidis represent some 35% of the population, mostly concentrated in the north, the Houthis have pressed into the south to try to defeat the remainder of pro-government forces—both tribes and military—that have hunkered down there.

As Houthi rebels have tried to reinforce their rebels in the south from supply lines in the north, they have seen their convoys struck by Saudi warplanes and land mines planted by forces loyal to Mr. Hadi. One such land mine killed 25 Houthi rebels in Lahij province Saturday as the Houthi convoy headed to Aden to reinforce positions there.

Mr. Hadi is currently in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, attending an Arab League summit, where the situation in Yemen dominated the agenda. Several Arab heads of state called on the Houthis to surrender over the weekend, blasting Iran’s support for the rebel group while warning that the continuing Saudi-led military campaign against the Houthis could last for six months.

Saudi Arabia has warned it could launch a ground invasion of Yemen, but Arab diplomats say it could be political posturing. The Saudi military has rarely been tested conventionally and Yemen’s rugged, mountainous terrain would prove a challenge to the kingdom’s forces, which are more accustomed to desert warfare—and even then remain largely untested.

Since the Saudi campaign started Thursday, airstrikes have killed 49, while clashes between the Houthis and pro-government forces left 75 dead, mostly combatants, according to Yemen’s health ministry.

Separately, an explosion Saturday at Jabal Hadid, the site of one of the Yemeni military’s biggest weapons depots, killed 52, mostly civilians, the health ministry said Sunday. Civilians were looting the depot after Houthis were cleared from the site by pro-government forces. The cause of the blast remains unknown.

(Source: Wall Street Journal)


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